Out the Window

Modern Homes are Heat Wasters, but Green Money-Savers are Possible

The American home hasn’t changed all that much since colonial times, and like the early Pilgrims, we waste a lot of energy, especially in the winter. In the average household today, $150 a year in heat energy is irretrievably lost through nooks and crannies. That may not seem like a lot, but consider that heating homes is a $110 billion a year business in the U.S. (amounting to about a fifth of the primary energy consumed annually), and that through burning fossil fuels to generate electricity and heat, America homes each pump 25,000 pounds of carbon dioxide and 113 pounds of sulfur dioxide emissions into the air.

It’s not that we aren’t trying to increase energy efficiency. In fact, since the oil embargo of 1973, energy bills have been cut a whopping $275 billion a year. The big savings have come through improvements in large-scale energy-wasters like industrial machinery, automobiles and office buildings, but there are a lot of things the humble homeowner can do, too. Here are some energy-saving tips that-while they may mean an initial cash outlay-will more than pay for themselves within a few years. Window shades. Cellular, or honeycomb, window shades, only on the market since 1985, can act both as an attractive design element and, through their honeycomb air pockets, as an insulator to keep out summer heat and winter cold. Hunter Douglas Duette shades, for instance, claim efficiency “R” ratings (which, on an ascending scale, measure resistance to winter heat loss or summer heat gain) of 3.5 for single cell shades, and 4.8 for triple cells.

Draft-proofing windows and doors. The Department of Energy says that millions of American homes are not properly protected against outside weather. Caulking and weatherstripping leaky doors and windows should cost only $40 or $50 for the average house, but the energy cost savings could amount to 10 percent a year. If you don’t have storm windows, heavy-duty clear plastic sheeting can be taped around window frames.

Reflecting Windows. Even better than regular storms are low-emissivity (low-E) windows, which can save up to 15 percent on heating bills. According to Mark Harris, author of Embracing the Earth: Choices for Environmentally Sound Living, low-E windows are coated with an invisible metal film that reflects heat in that would otherwise exit out of the house. Though they’re expensive initially, there’s a quick payback.

Pellet Stoves. This environmental improvement over the conventional wood stove burns ready-made “pellets” made of sawdust and cardboard. One stove can heat 2,000 square feet, and will release only negligible amounts of airborne pollutants and ash.

A Clock Thermostat. One of the cheapest, easiest-to-install purchases you can make is a simple timed thermostat that will automatically turn the heat down when you go to bed and turn it up again in the morning. A do-it-yourself unit should cost only $40 to $90.

Wear More Clothes! Believe it or not, by simply piling on another layer or two (trapping air between the layers and creating insulation), you should be able to comfortably survive the winter with the thermostat set at 65 during the day and 60 at night. Clothing helps retain the body’s natural heat (390 Btu’s an hour for men; 330 for women). Closely woven fabrics add at least a half degree in warmth.

Service Your Furnace. Oil furnaces require regular maintenance, preferably a cleaning and service once a year. A service contract is probably a good investment, or take advantage of low off-season rates in the summer. Forced-air heating systems require regular filter cleaning or replacement, and ducts should be checked for air leaks. Radiators should be regularly dusted or vacuumed and, if painted, a flat, preferably black paint radiates heat more efficiently.

Insulating. While buying and installing insulating materials in your walls may cost a few hundred dollars, the load on your furnace can be reduced 20 to 30 percent. Insulation is available in such material as rock wool batts, foam (which can be blown into walls) and, most commonly, fiberglass sheets (which has come into question as a possible carcinogen). The “R” value should be printed on the insulation package; if it’s not, ask a salesperson to provide it. Attic floors and top floor ceilings are excellent insulation candidates, and if old insulation is present but less than three inches thick, it may need to be built up further.

Obviously, there are environmental hazards in too tightly sealing a house so that it prevents air circulation. If at all possible, leave windows open to increase cross-ventilation. But if you can see leaking heat as lost dollars and wasted energy, it will be easy to justify paying out now for some future savings.

JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E.